Thinking about Cycles & Open Web

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While we are often busy with our daily lives, we are oftentimes interacting with the changing environment around us. We often see that that conventional wisdom is overturned by disrupting forces or paradigm shifts. Hence I often tell myself that it is important to look at what’s ahead and what’s changing around my environment and figure out the response to change. Lately, my observations indicate that the current cycle of the Internet might be coming to an end while a new cycle emerges.

Probably somewhere around 2004 to 2009, when the Internet was still recovering from the wounds of the dot com crash, there was the open web movement where many wanted to democratize the contest of ideas in the digital space. Blogging is one of those open movements where everyone can create a site for themselves and express their thoughts. Eventually, we see the rise of citizen journalism and the bloom of a thousand schools of thoughts. Like everything else, whether you are blogging or even podcasting, you are sold to the dream that you can create content from anywhere and reach out to an audience out there without getting access thru gatekeepers. The open web is a counter culture towards the dominance of Microsoft where the open source movement was considered the niche.

The Internet was booming with new energy and ideas and we have a web 2.0 movement that celebrates the coming of the open web. In the utopia of the open web, you can create and build a movement from scratch and reach a new audience that you never know existed. There are other side benefits to the open web concept with respect to commerce. If you build your own product, you can leverage on the Internet and sell without the challenge of paying physical stores which are rent seeking and stop your product in getting distribution from the masses. Then something happened, some of the platforms that enable how you can build freely on the Internet started to have investors and shift into the commercialization mode. The shift with capital infusing into the open web generated competition. Competition defines winners and losers and in the end, consolidation happens everywhere, whether content or the tools that enable the generation of content. In the end, we ended up what we see today where certain platforms become dominant and eventually limits what those who want the open web to be. It is history repeating itself with some rhymes in a certain era of human era.

When I think about the digital world today, it is similar to the era where Microsoft dominates the world from the operating system to the browser. Some argued that the anti-trust case brought to Microsoft stopped them and eventually opened the way to the new Internet giants of today. I disagree with that assertion but only accept that that event just pressed the brakes against Microsoft in complete domination. What really destroyed Microsoft’s domination, was innovation and how people making small changes slowly that eventually jumpstarted with the entrance of the iPhone defining the current mobile era.

I have suspected that intense competition on the Internet between platforms has led to the waning of the open web. In China, the open web is dead given how the Chinese technology giants are competing against each other daily and finding every small advantage to put themselves in pole position. You cannot have your own blog and build your audience in China. You need to go through one of the channels from Wechat to Douyin to find your distribution.

Is the open web truly dead for those who dream of digital utopia? I don’t have an answer but I have a perspective to the question. We are now in another era of closed web again similar to the time where Microsoft have completely dominated the operating system and the Internet. There seems to be a few branches that are opening to new possibilities for those who dream of digital utopia. I believe that somewhere in those few up and coming technologies whether it is artificial intelligence, virtual/augmented reality or cryptocurrency; and the capabilities will shift the current period to another era of open web. I am equally sure that competition and capitalism will drag the upcoming era of open web back to a close one at some point. Perhaps, human nature is why we have often seen cycles happening in our history. The circumstances and the technology shifts may change but the human lessons are always the same.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist